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Sinister Sign Language: Decoding Messages from the Gods in ancient Greece!

We know the ancient Greek gods had trouble keeping their immortal noses out of other people's business. In art and mythology they were often transformed into animals or disguised as mortals to interfere with the lives of humans. But they could also be more subtle, sending signs from heaven for humans to interpret. This month, let's explore some examples of signs from the gods found in Greek history and myth!

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting the Romans at war with the Goths (3rd century CE)
The gods often sent signs to humans through dreams. The god of dreams and sleep, pictured above, was Morpheus. Charles Le Brun, "Le Soir ou Morphée" (1664-1677). Public Domain.

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How did the gods send signs?

The gods could use meteors, eclipses and comets to send messages to humans, but a favourite move was to send messages using birds, who fly in the space halfway between earth and heaven. As an oionopolos, or "interpreter of birds," you would look at the direction of their flight, or catch them and take a peak at their internal organs for clues!


One of the most famous signs from Zeus, sent through birds, was shown when the Greeks were on their way to fight in the Trojan war. In a grove, the Greeks had seen a nest of sparrows near an altar. There were eight baby chicks, and one mother sparrow. However, there was also a snake slithering across the altar, its back streaked with blood!

The snake made its way up to the nest and snapped up the sparrows one by one. Then, after eating the sparrows, it froze in place for it had turned to stone.


As you can imagine, this was a disturbing sight to the Greeks, and they were afraid of what they'd seen. However, Calchas, the prophet travelling with the Greeks at that time, said to the others:


"What troubles you about this sign,

Broad-backed, long-haired Achaeans?

Zeus sends a message true and kind!

Don't you see what I'm seein'?!


This snake nine sparrows, fangs deployed,

Did take within its jaws.

So we nine years shall strike at Troy.

The tenth we'll win the war."


Sleeping Prophecies

Another common place for signs from the gods was in dreams. Once, Xenophon – a great historian in ancient Greece – was fighting with a Spartan army against the Persians. While marching in foreign lands, the soldiers became discouraged. They were frightened that the Persian army would find them, and had lost their fighting spirit. None of the soldiers could sleep easily, but Xenophon slept long enough for a dream...


In this dream, a great storm was raging and a thunderbolt crashed against the earth like a cymbal. It had struck Xenophon's family home, which caught fire.


In ancient Greece, lightning was associated with Zeus, the ruler of the gods and the heavens. He is often depicted with a lightning bolt, which could take on a strange, unrecognisable form when illustrated on coins. Above is a coin from Epirus, 234-168 BCE, showing on one side Zeus' head, and on the other a lightning bolt. Image via Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Xenophon woke up terrified. On the one hand, lightning was a symbol of Zeus, and it was therefore good luck for it to appear in a dream. On the other hand, the fire created a circle around the house, which suggested the Greek army might be surrounded by the Persian army, unable to escape.


Xenophon's dream turned out to mean both these things. While the Persians were, in fact, surrounding him and the Greek army, he was lucky enough to escape with his life.


 
Frieze of the Pergamon Altar depicting Nike and Athena battling Alkyoneus
Wolves are an important symbol in dream interpretation, often signifying the violent approach of the enemy, according to the ancient Greeks.

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This month, learn the skills of onirocrisis and try interpreting your own dreams! Do you remember your last dream? What could the gods have been trying to tell you? Have you ever had a dream that predicted the future, and came true? To help you interpret your dreams, here are some common clues the ancient Greeks would use:

  • Wolves and foxes represent enemies.

  • Teeth represents your family.

  • Dreaming of someone or yourself with a bird's head means this person will soon leave the country of their birth.

  • To dream that you are dead means you will soon be married. It is generally considered a sign of good luck.

  • A serpent represents a king or any powerful figure.

Once you interpret your dream, we'd love to know what you found out! You can get a parent or guardian to email us at education@hellenic.org.au with your interpretation.


Until next time,

λεῖος πλόος!

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